By Radhika Jhaveri:
One comes across a variety of species of animals on a visit to the pet store. In addition to the various breeds of dogs and cats that are made available, one can find Cockatoos, Finches, Love Birds, Parakeets, Munias, Hill Mynahs, African Parrots and Star Backed Tortoises as well. A pair of love birds sells for Rs. 250 each, the African Parrot can be sold for an amount anywhere between Rs. 30,000 – 35,000 and the Star Backed Tortoise can fetch around Rs. 1,000 – 1,500 each. Wildlife Trade is a multimillion-dollar industry that has its network spread all over the world.
In India, a wide variety of wild animals are poached and their products traded. Elephants are poached for ivory; Rhinos for horns; Tigers, Leopards and Lions for their skins, claws, and penises which are in high demand because of their alleged value in traditional Chinese medicine. Migratory birds like the red crested Poachard and Pintails are hunted for sport mostly in the northeastern states of India.
Wildlife SOS’s anti-poaching unit, Forest Watch, works through a network of informants and agents to uncover poaching and trafficking operations in India and conducts regular raids and seizures to recover animal products, as well as live animals. Their most common recoveries during raids include skins, bones and other body parts of animals such as – sloth bears, leopards, pangolins, snakes, monitor lizards, turtles, tortoises, seahorses, fishes, rays, coral, birds and so on.
“It is very problematic because it happens through a very well connected middle man who is sitting in Kanpur or Delhi or Lucknow and will never get caught,” says Neha Sinha, who works with the Bombay Natural History Society as an expert on conversation and environmental policies. She adds, “It (trading in wildlife) is just like contraband like cocaine or heroine where you are selling a very high-value product. It is very difficult to root it out because you are talking about big money.”
Excessive poaching has led to the extinction of a number of species; the West African Black Rhino being the most recent to have joined the list of extinct species in the year 2011. Some of the other species that were hunted to extinction include the Pyrenean Ibex that went extinct in 2000. The passenger pigeon was hunted by farmers as they were believed to cause harm to their farms. The Quagga, known for its unique stripes, was hunted for its hide by ranchers. Last seen in the early 1950s, the Caribbean Monk Seal was declared extinct by over hunting in the year 2008. The sea mink, prized for its fur was hunted to extinction in the second half of the 19th century. Tasmanian tigers were believed to kill livestock and were consequently trapped and shot. The Javan tiger became extinct in the 1970s due to over-hunting and a loss of habitat. Excessive poaching, loss of habitat and hunting are driving thousands of other species towards extinction.
Now new species, like the pangolin, are being hunted. “The trade in pangolins and their parts has greatly been due to their use in traditional Chinese medicines, but off-late booming populations and greater wealth in China has increased the demand – pangolin scales, fetuses, and so on are used in medicine, their meat is considered a delicacy and stuffed pangolins are even sold as souvenirs,” says Suvidha Bhatnagar of Wildlife SOS. Wildlife SOS is famous for its work in rescuing and rehabilitating the famous dancing bears. She further adds, “Laws have been put in place to curb the poaching of pangolins and the trafficking of these animals to countries where demand is high, but the enforcement of such laws is lax.”
In India, various laws try to stem the growing trade in wildlife. The Wildlife Protection Act 1972, is one such. The act promises punishment for hunting, illegal possession and illegal trade in wild animals and their articles/derivatives, altering the boundary of a sanctuary or national park, etc. The punishment for offences under this Act is non-bailable with a jail term of up to seven years. While trading in Indian wild birds is a punishable offence according to the law, it is curious that it does not extend the same protection to exotic species or non-native birds such as the African Parrot. Hundreds of species are kept caged by the dozens in pet stores to be sold as ‘household pets.’ The failure of the act to ban such cruel trade in wild birds is a serious handicap in wildlife conservation in India.
The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, otherwise known as CITES, is an international agreement between governments of various nations. It attempts to regulate the international trade in wildlife. It claims to have accorded protection to over 35,000 species of plants and animals. The Indian Government became a party to CITES in the year 1976. The Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act, 1992 also provides some level of protection to wildlife in India. Under this act, import and export of all species of wild animals and their articles are prohibited. Customs Act, 1962 deals with all cases of violations of EXIM policy including policies that fall under CITES. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) alfurnishes assistance, legal and otherwise, to help solve wildlife related crimes.
However, despite the benefit of having a wide variety of laws that extends protection to a number of species, the conviction rate in India is at a disheartening rate of a mere two percent. Experts in the field say that in most of the cases, the culprit walks free due to lack of evidence. The fact that most of the market for animal products is situated outside the country does not help. It is difficult to implement laws when the purchasing country is not India. “The poorly implemented international ban on pangolin trade and the increasing demand means that poachers are rarely caught, rarely convicted and continue to reap high profits if they are successful, which they most often are,” says Ms Bhatnagar.
The efficacy of international treaties such as the CITES is also questionable. Bittu Sahgal, well known wildlife conservationist and the editor of the magazine Sanctuary Asia says, “They (CITES) are mandated to tackle poaching and trade, but the fact is many such organizations have been infiltrated by traders and each meeting is now a battle between those seeking to protect and others seeking to create loopholes in protection texts. A classic example is the Japanese insistence on “research kills” for whales and the Chinese penchant for farmed tigers. The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), comprising the CITES Secretariat, INTERPOL, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Bank and the World Customs Organisation (WCO), could have actually curbed poaching and wildlife trade by now, but this is simply low on the global priority.” In such a scenario, the only solution is to stop poaching at our end. “A higher rate of conviction is needed, the deterrent is not the amount of punishment but the guarantee of punishment,” says Ms Sinha.
India has embarked on a path of growth and development. It has been the constant rallying cry of Prime Minister Modi. The current environment minister Prakash Javdekar has even promised environmental clearances within ten days for mining and other industrial projects. It is widely believed that the neo-liberal model of development adopted by the leaders of our country will bring prosperity. What is forgotten and never mentioned in our developmental discourse is the fact that such development comes at the cost of widespread environmental destruction. Development is not possible without a functioning ecosystem. Such growth is meaningless if our rivers and lakes are polluted and our forests destroyed. Bittu Sehgal puts it quite succinctly when he says, “The mistake made by our leaders is that they intrinsically believe that India has to first get rich then protect the environment. The truth is the economy is a house of cards that sits on a stable ecological foundation, not the other way round. It will take no more than three or four consecutive droughts, coupled with a flood or two to cause the entire economy to come tumbling down, GDP ambitions and all.”